When Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google, their motto was, “Don’t be evil.” That advice somehow never made its way into the boardroom of Uber, where everything the company does seems to be tinged with sinister purpose. Every organization reflects the values of its leader. A lengthy article in the New York Times last weekend makes Uber founder Travis Kalanick sound like little more than a horse’s ass.
The Times puff piece apologizes for poor little rich kid Travis who was cruelly bullied as a child. The suggestion is the experience toughened him up and made him into the clear eyed genius who created the world’s most successful ride hailing business, valued today at somewhere around $70 billion. The fact that a company with an app can be worth more than General Motors or Tesla is a commentary on the bubbling, seething culture of tech startups — a culture that is lampooned brilliantly by the NetFlix series, Silicon Valley.
Uber has adopted a highly combative corporate style to fend off any and all attempts by local authorities to regulate it. For years, it has employed a program known as Greyball to avoid surveillance by officials. The program identifies those suspected of being government watchdogs and sends them false or misleading information about Uber cars in their area. Often, the company software ends up cancelling a request for a ride from someone it considers suspicious.
Uber says it developed the Grayball software to thwart people who might make its drivers targets of physical harm and to keep competitors from acquiring proprietary information about the company and its operations. Authorities like Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, see it differently. Wheeler says, “I am very concerned that Uber may have purposefully worked to thwart the city’s job to protect the public.”
Recently, Uber has been torched by allegations that there is a culture of sexual harassment within the company. After initially denying the allegations, Kalanick later yielded to pressure and announced a top to bottom review of company personnel procedures. More recently, Uber stepped into another pile of trouble after Apple discovered it was using a process known as “fingerprinting” to monitor the phones of Uber users who had downloaded the Uber app to their smartphones even after the app was deleted and the phones were restarted.
That landed Kalanick in hot water with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who invited him to a private meeting and told him to stop using the process or Apple would block the app from every iPhone in the world, according to the New York Times. Kalanick agreed to do so but has since fired back at the suggestion it did anything wrong. It says the “fingerprinting” process is a common industry practice.
Mark Cuban, who is an investor in Uber, tells the New York Times, “Travis’ biggest strength is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goal.” Then Cuban adds, “Travis’ greatest weakness is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goal.” Former colleagues describe him as being “emotionally unintelligent.” He has organized staff meetings to discuss how to take down competitors, including Lyft, Uber’s biggest rival.
Kalanick was filmed having a violent argument with an Uber driver earlier this year after the driver suggested the company’s compensation package was inadequate. Uber is known for cutting back on the percentage it pays its drivers. When putative president Donald Trump issued his first travel ban, taxi drivers in New York City called a one hour strike to protest the treatment of immigrants. Uber responded by sending as many drivers as possible to JFK airport, a move that earned it scorn from the public. Millions of people deleted their Uber app as a result.
Last week, another storm broke over the company when it was learned that Unroll.me, a free e-mail organizing service, was selling customer data to Uber that would allow it to determine how many people were using Lyft in a given area. That sort of mania for spying on the competition is endemic at Uber.
Uber’s business model is to browbeat government officials, competitors, customers, women, and its own drivers into submission as it pursues absolute dominance in the ride hailing business. Elon Musk recently referred to the new Tesla Network that’s coming soon as “the people versus Uber.” Being an overbearing, anti-social jerk may be one way to get a business off the ground, but being loathed by people how have been bludgeoned by the company’s scorched earth policies in the past may not be a good strategy for long term success.